Spain is a wonderful place to visit -- sun, culture, cheap wine -- so why not make your vacation do double duty and learn a little something when you go overseas?
There’s no better way to increase your Spanish skills than taking a language course in Spain. The teachers are all native speakers, so they’ll give you an authentic accent (and the inside scoop on slang). Being in an environment where everyone around you speaks Spanish will allow you to practice constantly, whether you’re grocery shopping or sipping sangria on the beach. And, if you’re thinking about becoming an expat in Spain, learning Spanish will help you integrate into the community and make understanding the visa process that much easier.
While I was living in Spain, I took group classes, attended an intensive course, and had a private tutor. During my first year, I took a three-hour group class that met once a week. We struggled through conversations together and enjoyed the coffee breaks when we would be free to speak any language we liked. At the beginning of my second year, I took an intensive course that met for four hours each day. This was for serious learners who didn't have much time to mess around--the coffee breaks remained a Spanish only zone. My final year, I hired one of my Spanish friends as a tutor, which allowed me to ask about vocabulary I needed for my own life and fit the classes to my own schedule.
No matter how you go about it, studying Spanish in Spain comes with its own set of challenges and advantages. Lucky for you, we’ve compiled a list of things to know before you start your course. Keep these points in mind and you’ll be sure to learn more and have more fun!
There Are Four Components of Fluency
Language fluency is judged on a student's ability to read, write, listen, and speak in the language they are trying to learn.
You can practice reading, writing, and listening anywhere in the world -- so focus on conversation while learning Spanish in Spain! You'll have native Spanish speakers to correct you and plenty of locals to practice on.
Speaking is often the scariest part of language learning, so try to push out of your comfort zone and appreciate the small accomplishments. Can’t order dinner without switching into English? Be sure to thank your server in Spanish. That way you’re still practicing.
Don't Speak English With Other Students
Since conversation is the main area where you can improve while learning Spanish in Spain, you need to actually speak Spanish. It is tempting to switch into English with your classmates, particularly when you’ve spent hours in class already.
Try to avoid this, as it keeps you from engaging with Spanish as deeply as you could. Better still, make some friends who don’t speak English. Live with Spanish roommates, or stay with a Spanish family and you’ll be speaking Spanish after class no matter what (an argument about whose dishes are in the sink is still practice!). The best language class many expats say they ever 'took' was dating someone Spanish -- there’s a real incentive to learn how to communicate when your love life is on the line!
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Focus On Your Language Learning Goals
Decide why you want to learn Spanish and let your teacher know. Are you expanding a business to Spain? Marrying into a Spanish family? Just really into tapas?
Generally, instructors are happy to tailor the course to your needs and you'll be more motivated and engaged, going into a class that fits you. Having a good understanding of what you want to get out of the course can help you make sure that you’re choosing the right academy as well -- you don’t want to pay for classes that you want for your college degree, only to find out the school can’t transfer the credits!
Spain Spanish Will Be Different Than What You Learned At Home
To be U.S.-centric for a moment, Spanish taught in the US is generally Mexican Spanish. This is not the same Spanish as you will learn through your immersion and any language courses in Spain. Some vocabulary you learned back home may be different, and the accent will certainly be confusing at first.
When I arrived in Spain, I had a lot of trouble getting a glass of orange juice because I was asking for “jugo de naranja” instead of “zumo de naranja” (with an atrocious accent to boot!). The word I was using wasn’t wrong -- but it wasn’t the way Spanish people talk about juice.
There are a number of small differences like this, so don’t feel bad when you encounter them. At the end of the day, learning more ways to ask for juice means you’ll be able to get juice in more countries! Some students have also spent many years with one particular teacher, which can influence the way that they engage with the language.
Even if you were taught by a Spaniard in your home country, they will not sound exactly the same as every other person in Spain. Remember, your teacher’s Spanish came from their own experience, which means there will be plenty of other people in the world that speak Spanish differently.
Spanish Accents Vary Regionally Within Spain
Just as people from Alabama and Maine sound different, Spanish speakers from different regions of Spain have very different accents (and sometimes will even switch into different regional languages!).
When selecting your language course, take into consideration what kind of accent you want to have (the posh Madrid lisp? the Andalucian disregard for the end of words?) and choose your teacher accordingly. It will also help your overall fluency to practice speaking with people from different regions (a great excuse for a weekend trip!).
Some People Will Be Easier to Understand
Even after living in Spain for several years, I still have trouble when certain people speak. Ask any expat committed to learning the language and they can list oodles of experiences where they couldn’t understand particular people.
When I was taking surfing lessons in Cadiz, my instructor’s combination of a southern accent and gravelly voice made it extremely difficult for me to understand what time my lesson would take place. Was it dos (2)? Or doce (12)? I ended up counting on my fingers with him to ensure I didn’t show up two hours late for my lesson.
The good news is, the more experience you get, the more kinds of people you’ll be able to talk to easily. Don't feel bad if you can understand a child (who uses simple vocabulary), but not her chain-smoking, fast-talking mother.
Face Your Fears
Practice the parts of language learning that scare you! I managed to spend years avoiding both learning how to accent words in written Spanish and how to use the more complicated verb tenses. I had no idea what the subjunctive might be used for or how it could be useful in my own life.
Little did I know, I’d be moving to Spain and unable to write anything by hand because of my reliance on the internet for accent advice! Be smarter than me. I did eventually master the subjunctive and thank myself silently every time I’m able to politely ask for a glass of water in a restaurant instead of demanding one.
Remember You Won't Be Fluent Overnight
Focus on becoming comfortable in the language rather than being perfect. The longer you study Spanish, the better your Spanish will become, but it takes time. If you’re really committed to learning the language, you might want to extend your stay.
Many expats get jobs teaching English as a second language in order to stay in the country for a year or more, which allows them to get an extended immersion experience. If you’ve only got a short period of time in the country, you can expose yourself to Spanish in other ways when you get home. Find a conversation partner or watch Telemundo -- just keep practicing!
Expect to Make Mistakes
Similar to the point I just made, remember that every embarrassing moment is a potentially great story to tell later and getting your point across is more important than being perfect.
For example, I can never remember the word for knife in restaurants, so I usually end up just describing what I need if I have only been given a fork, which happens surprisingly often (“I need one of those things that cuts. You know, not a fork?”). The waiters get a good laugh, and I get my knife. Try to embrace the surprises that come from miscommunication. If you get “caña” and “cava” confused, then you’ll be sipping champagne while your less fabulous friends drink their tiny beers.
Prepare to Meet People With Other Backgrounds
Your classmates while learning Spanish won't be just other Americans (or British people, or etc.), so be prepared to be culturally sensitive.
My first intensive course was with a bunch of African nuns that had recently been placed at a convent in Madrid. That class was a lot more engaging because we came from such different backgrounds. There’s only so many times you want to listen to people talk about the mundane minutiae of their lives, but a big part of language learning is covering the vocabulary for exactly these kinds of things.
I’ve met tons of people from cool places through language schools, and the people who don’t speak English as their first language are often the best conversational partners while you’re still learning. So get coffee with the French girl in your class, and embrace the diversity of the language learning environment. Who knows, you might get to stay at her apartment in Paris someday when you decide to learn French in France!
Explore & Have Fun
You’re in Spain, for Pete’s sake! Get your nose out of the Spanish textbook and go see what this beautiful country has to offer.
A huge part of learning a new language is being able to interact with a new culture, so visit the Prado, picnic in the park, eat tons of tapas and just generally have a blast. Now that you know what to expect while learning Spanish in Spain, explore Spanish language schools and read reviews to find the place that’s perfect for you.